New Yorkers should rejoice that the Environmental Protection Agency last week slapped down California's request to write its own fuel-economy rules to combat global warming. Gov. Spitzer had vowed to follow the lead of California's Arnold Schwarzenegger—so if the "Governator" had prevailed, New Yorkers would have seen their wallets and their cars shrinking.
New York (with more than a dozen other states) has historically adopted California's standards for tail-pipe emissions—requirements notably tougher than federal standards. Since 1970, the Golden State has regularly won the right to set tougher-than-the-feds clean-air rules because it needed more drastic standards to address its acute smog problem. The feds have granted other states with similar air-pollution issues the option of choosing California's rules.
But following California on fighting smog is far different from copying it on combating global warming, as Spitzer has declared he'd do.
Smog has local causes—and local health effects. It produces higher rates of asthma, emphysema and other respiratory ailments; these can be addressed by reducing local emissions of smog-causing gases, such as ozone and sulfur dioxide.
But global climate change is, obviously, a global issue – its causes and effects simply aren't localized in the same way. Its impact on particular communities is a vast unknown – and there are no local remedies for it.
California's proposed fuel-economy standards became especially redundant after President Bush signed the new energy bill into law last week. This will require automakers to raise their fuel-economy standards by 40 percent—to an industry-wide average of 35 miles per gallon—sby 2020.
Schwarzenegger doesn't agree; he's threatening to sue the EPA to overturn its decision. His rules would force automakers to bump up their fuel efficiency 23 percent by 2012 and 30 percent by 2016—the equivalent of 33.8 mpg.
This is an impossible task. The federal standards will be tough enough for automakers to deliver without compromising on space, safety, power and (above all) low prices—all things that consumers value more than gas mileage. There is simply no technology now available that can combine everything that consumers want with the stipulated gas mileage. If there was, automakers wouldn't need a mandate—they'd run, not walk, to put it on the market.
But why are California's goals so much tougher, even though the federal rules allow just four more years to another 1.2 mpg? Because cars have a long production cycle—models now in the planning stage won't be available until 2014.
So there's simply no time to come up with new designs that will do the job. That means the only way automakers could comply with California's deadline is by withholding from consumers the higher-emission vehicles they want in states that insist on it.
In other words, they'd have to pull the vast majority of their vehicles from those markets, not only SUVs and light trucks, but even most sedans.
Consider Toyota, the darling of the greens: It now makes maybe two vehicles—manual-transmission Yaris and hybrid Prius—that meet California's standards. Toyota's Camry, the top-selling car in America, gets only 25 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
Indeed, the net effect of the California standard would be to impose either small compacts or hybrids on all new-car buyers—even though hybrids costs $3,000 to $5,000 more than their non-hybridized versions and have a much shorter lifespan.
The few New Yorkers who prefer expensive, hybrid vehicles—or tiny subcompacts—wouldn't feel the pinch of the California rules. But hybrids make up only about 1 percent of New York's (and the nation's) auto purchases. By contrast, about half of New York motorists drive light trucks such as SUVs, minivans and pick-ups—compared with 53 percent nationally. And if you exclude Manhattan, New York's share of light trucks is actually higher than the national figure. (In parts of Upstate, it's close to 60 percent.)
It's not hard to understand why so many New Yorkers pick these gas-guzzlers over sedans with better gas mileage. Suburban families with kids love SUVs for their spaciousness and superior safety record. (Several national studies have confirmed that SUVs are responsible for 2,200 to 3,900 fewer auto deaths every year.) And certain types of light trucks are particularly suitable for winter driving in Upstate's hills.
Perhaps more important is the simple fact that cramming New Yorkers into smaller, more expensive and less safe cars wouldn't do anything about global climate change.
Many climate scientists agree: Even if the whole world adopted a 45 mpg fuel-economy standard, global temperature would drop by only five-hundredths of a degree Fahrenheit by 2100.
And James Hansen—a Columbia University climatologist and a global warming worrywart—has admitted under oath that subjecting the whole country to the Schwarzenegger standard wouldn't bring any measurable cut in global temperature.
Schwarzenegger seems determined to cast himself as Don Quixote in the unfolding drama of global warming. Spitzer would be foolish to play Sancho Panzo in that futile battle.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the New York Post.